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Things to do in Kaikōura: NZ’s marine haven

Discover the best things to do in Kaikōura with our tried and tested recommendations.

Kaikōura is a beautiful coastal town, located on New Zealand’s South Island. There, the ocean combines with snowcapped mountains to create a picture-perfect setting for an idyllic getaway.

Whilst there, we suggest you immerse yourself in animal encounters, get active on the water and marvel at the incredible scenery Kaikōura has on offer!

Here are all the best things to do in Kaikōura.

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School of dolphins underwater.
Kaikōura is known for its incredible marine life. Photo: Dolphin Encounter.

Incredible Things to Do in Kaikōura: The Only Guide You’ll Need

Where Is Kaikōura?

Kaikōura is a quaint seaside town located on the East Coast of New Zealand’s South Islandonly two and a half hour’s drive north of Christchurch.

If you’re coming from the North Island, take the ferry from Wellington to Picton and drive two hours further south along the coast to Kaikōura. The ferry ride alone is known for being one of the world’s most beautiful journeys so it’s well worth enjoying.

Did you know? Kaikōura has been a part of both Nelson and Marlborough, but it is now officially a part of the Canterbury province.

Where To Stay in Kaikōura

Kaikōura has plenty of options when it comes to accommodation. The following is a glimpse of the best of what Kaikōura has to offer.

Hotels

We love the Kaikōura Boutique Hotel. It’s a quaint and quiet hotel, with a dream location opposite the beach. Located just five minutes walk from the popular Dolphin Encounter and ten minutes from town, it’s an ideal location to base yourself for your stay!

Another excellent option is the White Morph Hotel. Located directly next to Dolphin Encounter, this is an excellent option for those of you wanting to do an early morning dolphin tour. They also have breakfast deals with the Encounter Cafe and could be an excellent choice for your stay!

Hostels

There are three main hostels in Kaikōura. I’m going to recommend the two I’ve stayed at. The first is Dusky Lodge, which is equipped with a pool, hot tub and excellent kitchen facilities. It is located a 10-minute walk from the middle of town.

Your other option is Albatross House. A cool and quirky hostel, with an emphasis on the arts, with blank canvases for painting, musical instruments, board games and weekly events. This is one of my favourite hostels in New Zealand!

Campsites

Kaikōura Top Ten Holiday Park and Campsite is an amazing option for those of you who will be camping, whilst they also offer beachfront villas, two-bedroom motels and cosy cabins. They have powered and unpowered sites available, so you can choose what suits your needs best! This is a fantastic campsite with facilities including basic amenities like showers and kitchen as well as a swimming pool, sauna, gear hire, BBQ and children’s play area. You’ll also get to wake up at the beach with the stunning alpine backdrop alongside!

When you book through our links, you’ll often get a discount and we may earn a commission. Your support also allows us to run our Facebook community and create helpful content at no cost to you. Thank you!

Best Places To Eat In Kaikōura

Getting fish and chips in a seaside town and eating them at the beach is the ultimate way to spend an evening. Coopers Catch is the best option, with excellent portion sizes and a convenient location in the centre of town.

If you have a car, your other option is to drive along to The Top Shop, which is slightly further out of town.

Kaikōura is also famous as a hotspot for Kiwi favourite, Crayfish. Kaikōura Seafood BBQ Kiosk, located at the start of the Peninsula Walk is known for having the best value Crayfish in town. 

Nins Bins seafood restaurant, near the shores of Kaikoura.
Nins Bins. Photo credit: Lisa Bond.

Things to do in Kaikōura – Rich in Marine History

Kaikōura is home to a 2km deep Canyon, stretching 60km. This provides a unique and rich environment for marine mammals to thrive. The cliffs and crags along the coast provide the perfect spot for a variety of birdlife, seals and penguins, adding to this incredible myriad of ocean wildlife. 

Swim With Dolphins 

The number one thing to do in Kaikōura is getting yourself out on a boat tour to swim with the magnificent resident dusky dolphins

Encounter Kaikōura operate daily tours, leaving at 5 am, 8 am and 11 am. As the dusky dolphins are residents in Kaikōura year-round, the company has an excellent success rate of finding them at well over 95%. 

They offer two tours, watching or swimming, each lasting around two and a half hours on board.

The watching tour is more affordable and presents an amazing opportunity to get photos of these majestic animals.

The swim includes all your gear hire from snorkel to wetsuit. You’ll have several opportunities to get in the water and realise your dream of swimming with dolphins!

Once the swim is finished, you’ll spend another 30 minutes with the dolphins as your guide gives you some information about them, whilst you watch them play and get some more amazing photos.

96 Esplanade, Kaikōura 7300

Photography Tip – Take a DSLR with you for the best quality results. It’s amazing being in the water with dolphins but the visibility in Kaikōura is only 3-5 metres and GoPro footage is low resolution as a result.

A dolphin doing backflip above the blue waters.
Acrobatic Dusky Dolphins.

Marvel At Kaikōura’s Whales

The other major attraction in Kaikōura that rivals swimming with dolphins, is getting up close and personal with the world’s largest mammals! Once again Kaikōura’s canyon provides the perfect environment for whales to thrive, with sperm whales calling the region home year-round.

On the tour, you’ll also have the potential to see humpback whales, right whales and the world’s largest and most incredible mammal, blue whales. Kaikoura also sees regular visits from a pod of orca each month.

If you’re lucky enough to see these incredible mammals on board, it’s a truly magical experience.

You have several options for whale watching, with the most popular being the traditional whale watch cruise. The success rate for the tour is once again over 95%, whilst partial refunds are offered in no whales are seen.

Your other option to see whales in Kaikōura is to take to the skies for a scenic flight with Wings Over Whales or Kaikōura Helicopters. You’ll have the opportunity to see some of the incredible marine life on offer in Kaikōura, whilst also getting the scenic flight over the beautiful coastline.

Whaleway Station Road, Kaikōura 7340

A whale puff water on its blowhole in the sea of Kaikoura.
Incredible views from Wings Over Whales.

Relax with Seals and Penguins

Kaikōura is home to a special peninsula walk, taking you along its majestic coastline. From the coast, you’ll be treated to the occasional sightings of whales and dolphins, whilst seals can be found relaxing along the shores! Encountering them is one reason why Kaikōura walks are so much worth it. There is also a company in town offering seal swims if you fancy getting in the water with them.

If you visit during the months of January to March, you may even be treated to a sighting of the incredibly rare yellow-eyed penguin. These endemic birds are critically endangered, with only 4,000 remaining! Having the opportunity to spend time with one is a really special moment!

They can generally be found ashore in the early evening between the hours of 5.30 and 7.30. If you want to see one during summer, you’ll have to go to South Bay (where the boat tours leave from) and take the coastal track to Sharks Tooth, an enormous rock resembling a shark’s tooth. The penguin can usually be found calling for a mate here. 

Seals resting on top of rocks with snow-capped mountains reign behind them.
Kaikōura seals basking in the sun.

Get Active On The Water

Kayak in Kaikōura

Kaikōura is a coastal town and what better way to experience it than from the water? 

Kaikōura Kayaks offer Tours and Kayak Hire, so you can get out on the water and experience the animals up close! If you stick to the coastline, you’ll increase your chances of seeing seals, octopus and penguins.

19 Killarney Street, Kaikōura 7300

Tourists riding on a kayak while a dolphin jumps near them.

Surf

Kaikōura is famous for its surf break, although the enormous waves and rocky inlets don’t make it easy! Kaikōura is definitely not a spot for beginners!

If you’re of an intermediate level surfer though, Mangamaunu is the best spot, with the most consistent waves, reaching up to two metres.

If you’re going to try and hit the waves at Meatworks or Graveyards, make sure you chat to some locals before jumping in! The surf can move boulders and it’s a good idea to find out where the dangers lie before you start.

A man surfing in the waves of Kaikoura.

Paddleboard

I may have just saved the best for last! You can hire Stand-Up Paddle boards from a number of places, including Kaikōura Surf, Coastal Sports and Kaikōura Kayaks.

This is an amazing place to be on the ocean because there are so many amazing opportunities just waiting for you.

During the months of March and April, the dusky dolphins regularly come close to shore in South Bay, which might just present you with the best experience of your life, paddle boarding with dolphins in their natural habitats!

This one is enough to give you chills!

A person in the middle of the sea riding a paddle board while a dolphin flips in front of him.
Paddle boarding with dolphins.

Enjoy The Natural Beauty of Kaikōura

Kaikōura is an effortlessly beautiful town, with the alpine backdrop perfectly complementing the stunning blue ocean. The best places to just sit and admire the views tend to be higher up. The Peninsula Walk is a great place to admire the beauty, but the best spot in town is the Kaikōura Viewpoint. The perfect way to enjoy the viewpoint is to grab yourself a fish & chips and eat them on the benches, whilst the sun sets over the ocean.

The sunrises and sunsets are well worth watching! The sky regularly lights up with stunning colours of red, pink, purple and blue. Always worth getting up early to watch a sunrise in Kaikōura!

A beautiful Kaikoura sunset in shades of orange, dark blue, and lavender.
Kaikōura sunset.

Kaikōura’s Waiting – Are you Ready?

With so much natural beauty and a unique marine environment, there really isn’t anywhere else in New Zealand that’s quite like Kaikōura.

It really is a must-see on any animal-lover’s New Zealand itinerary.

If you’re in the South Island during the winter season, check out these ski fields in Queenstown & Wānaka.


Guest Post by Jamie Boucher from Bristolian Abroad

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